Back in the early 2000s, a physiologist by the name of Bryan Haycock coined the term Hypertrophy Specific Training. At the time, much of the training advice came from coaches who were focused mainly on improving strength and performance, rather than muscle growth.
After digging into the research that looks specifically at how muscles grow, Bryan came up with a program designed with the sole aim of making your muscles bigger, which he dubbed hypertrophy specific training, or HST for short.
Hypertrophy Specific Training: The Program
Although multiple variations have appeared over the years, Haycock’s original Hypertrophy Specific Training program involved a full-body workout performed three times a week. Sets were typically limited to one or two work sets per exercise.
In the first couple of weeks, you start out doing sets of 15 reps. In weeks three and four, this drops to 10 reps, then down to 5 reps in weeks five and six. As the reps drop, the weights go up. In weeks seven and eight, you carry on doing sets of 5, but you also have the option of throwing in some heavy eccentric work on certain exercises.
Following each cycle, you take nine days off. This strategic deconditioning phase is supposed to prime your muscles to respond to the training stimulus when you get back in the gym. Then you start the next cycle, this time using slightly heavier weights than you were using in cycle one.
The Hypertrophy Specific Training program designed by Haycock represents one way of applying the principles involved in muscle growth. But it’s certainly not the only way, or even the best way, to go about doing so.
If you want to have a go at designing your own hypertrophy specific training program, here are some of the key principles you need to know.
Hypertrophy and How Muscles Grow
Take a slice of muscle tissue from your biceps and look at it under a powerful microscope. You’ll see that it’s made up of many smaller muscle fibers. Your muscles grow when these individual fibers become thicker, a process known as hypertrophy.
The job of a hypertrophy workout is to stimulate growth. And it’s while you’re resting, in the hours and days after the workout is over, that the actual muscle growth takes place.
Muscle proteins that have been damaged during the workout are broken down, and new muscle protein is synthesized to take their place.
Research shows that the process of building muscle begins almost immediately after your first workout.
In fact, just three hours after you leave the gym, the rate of muscle protein synthesis – a key driver of hypertrophy – is already increased. Your body is busy repairing damaged muscle fibers, as well as laying down the new muscle protein that makes each fiber a little larger than it was before.
So, that’s what hypertrophy is. But what’s the best way to go about making it happen?
Hypertrophy Training Methods
Although there are many different ways to set up an effective hypertrophy training program, two of my favorites are the 3-day full-body workout and the 4-day upper/lower split.
The 3-day full-body workout involves training your whole body three times a week on alternate days, normally Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Monday: Full Body
Wednesday: Full Body
Friday: Full Body
The days of the week that you train aren’t set in stone. If you can’t make it to the gym on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you can always train on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Option two is to hit the gym four days a week using an upper/lower split.
Monday: Upper Body
Tuesday: Lower Body
Thursday: Upper Body
Friday: Lower Body
You train the upper body on Monday, lower body on Tuesday, then take Wednesday off. Thursday is upper body, Friday is lower body and you have the weekend off. Each muscle group is trained twice a week.
You can also combine the two and work your upper body on day one, your lower body on day two, followed by a full-body workout on day three. Here’s how it might look over the course of a week:
Monday: Upper Body
Wednesday: Lower Body
How to Stimulate Muscle Growth
To stimulate muscle hypertrophy, it’s important to train hard and focus on improving your workout performance over time.
What exactly do I mean by that?
Within certain limits, a muscle will grow in direct proportion to the amount of work it’s required to perform. Do the same number of sets and reps, while lifting the same amount of weight, for the next five years, and nothing much will happen.
That’s because the training you’re doing is below the threshold required to stimulate hypertrophy. It’s a challenge your body has already adapted to. As a result, no new muscle will be gained.
You’re not going to improve every time you go to the gym. To do so indefinitely would be impossible, and there’ll be times when you end up lifting the same amount of weight, for the same number of sets and reps you did in the previous workout.
However, the focus of a hypertrophy training program should always be on pushing yourself to increase the amount of work your muscles are doing, whether that’s lifting heavier weights, doing more reps with the same weight, or ramping up your training volume.
You need to give your muscles a reason to grow or they’ll remain stuck at the same size they are right now.
Some say that certain exercises, such as the squat, deadlift, bench press and so on, are an “essential” part of hypertrophy training.
However, while these exercises work large numbers of muscles, they’re not always the most “joint friendly” options out there. The last thing you want is to feel constantly nagged by various aches and pains in your knees, elbows, shoulders or back.
If you find that a particular exercise makes your joints flare up, don’t be afraid to ditch it and find a similar one that doesn’t. There is no single “must do” exercise that can’t be replaced with something else.
Muscle hypertrophy can be stimulated just as well with alternative exercises (many of which I show you in my MX4 training program – https://muscleevo.com/mx4) that don’t cause the same level of pain or discomfort.
How Many Reps and Sets Should You Do for Hypertrophy?
As far as sets go, there is a “dose-response” relationship between the number of sets you do for a muscle and the speed at which that muscle grows.
The more sets you do – up to a point at least – the faster your muscles will grow. However, there is a point at which doing more sets becomes counterproductive.
In other words, there’s a theoretical “optimal” number of sets per muscle group, above and below which gains in size will be slower than they otherwise would be.
As a rough guide, 10-12 sets per muscle group per week is a good starting point for a hypertrophy training program. Then, you can adjust the number of sets up or down based on how your body responds.
What about reps?
Conventional wisdom has it that training with light weights and high reps builds muscular endurance, but makes little contribution to gains in size. Heavy weights and lower reps has long been the accepted “best way” to train for hypertrophy.
That’s because lifting heavy weights places tension on a large number of muscle fibers, which in turn sends the “make me grow” signal to those fibers.
However, lifting heavy weights isn’t the only way to put a large number of muscle fibers under tension. Training with lighter weights and higher reps – where your muscles feel like they’re pumped up and about to explode – generates a large amount of metabolic stress, which also increases the activation of muscle fibers.
In fact, there’s plenty of research to show that lighter weights and higher reps do a surprisingly good job at stimulating muscle hypertrophy.
As long as you train hard and push yourself, high reps (15-30), medium reps (12-15) and low reps (5-8) can all be used successfully as part of a hypertrophy training program.
Hypertrophy Training and Nutrition
What you do in the gym is only part of the story when it comes to building muscle. Without enough food, much of your efforts in the gym will go to waste.
However, there’s an upper limit on the amount of nutrients you can take in and use to fuel muscle growth. If you’re currently eating below this upper limit, then you’ll build muscle faster by increasing your nutrient intake.
But once you’ve “maxed out” your rate of muscle gain, simply adding more calories won’t automatically lead to a faster rate of hypertrophy.
Think of it like this.
Imagine you own a factory that makes widgets. If you don’t give the workers enough of the raw materials (i.e. food) they need to make the widgets as fast as they could, the rate of widget production will drop. In that sense, an insufficient intake of nutrients will put the brakes on muscle growth.
What happens if you start to send more raw materials to the workers?
The rate of production will increase, but only up to a point. That’s because there’s a limit on the number of widgets the workers can crank out in a given amount of time. As soon as they’re working as fast as they can, sending more and more raw materials just becomes a waste.
In much the same way, you can’t force your body to grow simply by eating more. Adding nutrients to your diet will have a positive effect on muscle hypertrophy only until you reach nutrient saturation point.
Once you’ve moved past the beginner stages of training, the size of the calorie surplus required to maximize your rate of muscle growth while minimizing fat gain is only going to be a few hundred calories per day over and above your maintenance calorie requirements.
I know that might not sound like much, especially when you compare it with some of the 5000 calorie “bulking” diets out there.
But you can’t force your muscles to grow faster simply by eating massive amounts of protein, or stuffing yourself with food. All that’ll happen is that you get fat.
Some People Build Muscle Faster Than Others
Back when I started lifting weights, it seemed like no one could ever agree on the type of training program that worked best for muscle growth.
Everyone seemed to have a completely different opinion, and all were adamant that their “way” was the best way.
Surely they couldn’t all be right. Or could they?
In fact, research shows that some folks respond a lot better to certain types of hypertrophy training than others. The “best way” for one person to train may be very different to someone else’s “best way.”
Just because a particular style of training works well for some people doesn’t necessarily mean that your body will respond in the same way.
So don’t be afraid to experiment. If your muscles haven’t grown in response to heavy weights and lower reps, they might respond better to lighter weights and higher reps, or to an increase in training frequency.
Every body is different. Two people can follow the exact same training program and experience very different results. The process of hypertrophy will happen much more quickly for some than it will for others.
Once you have a decent hypertrophy training program set up, stick with it. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted by complicated training routines, expensive muscle-building supplements or fancy diets. Generating a significant amount of muscle hypertrophy takes persistence, hard work and patience.
Concentrate on training hard and eating right. Set challenging but realistic goals for yourself and work as hard as you can towards achieving them. If you’re serious about adding 20-30 pounds of muscle to your frame, it’s the consistent and relentless execution of the fundamentals that will get you there.